UK’s May aims to gain Conservative control after storm Boris

October 3, 2018
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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham, central England, Tuesday Oct. 2, 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) — Prime Minister Theresa May will urge her fractured Conservative Party on Wednesday to unite behind “decent, moderate and patriotic” policies, a day after her rival Boris Johnson trashed her Brexit plan and challenged her authority with a crowd-pleasing speech of his own.

May is ending the governing Conservatives’ annual conference with a call for the party to show that it “delivers on the issues (voters) care about and is comfortable with modern Britain in all its diversity.”

The four-day conference has been dominated by divisions over Britain’s impending departure from the European Union, with pro- and anti-EU camps both criticizing the prime minister’s negotiations with the bloc.

Just six months before Britain leaves on March 29, negotiations with the EU have ground to a halt and May is caught between Brexiteers like Johnson and those who want to keep close economic ties with the bloc, Britain’s biggest trading partner.

Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary in July, drew cheers from 1,500 delegates on Tuesday when he called May’s proposal for close post-Brexit economic ties an “outrage” that would leave Britain manacled to the EU and unable to strike new trade deals around the world.

May acknowledged that Johnson’s speech had made her “cross” but said she was sticking to her Brexit blueprint, which would keep Britain aligned to many EU rules in return for remaining in the bloc’s single market for goods.

She argues that her plan is the only way to avoid customs checks along the currently invisible border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland — a development that would be troublesome for residents and businesses on both sides, and could undermine Northern Ireland’s peace process.

But the EU is demanding new proposals from Britain before it signs a deal — and many Conservatives are in no mood to compromise.

May has had a tough year since a disastrous 2017 conference speech, when she was her plagued by a cough and interrupted by a prankster while parts of the backdrop fell down as she was speaking.

In Wednesday’s address, May will try to paint an optimistic picture of post-Brexit Britain, saying “I passionately believe that our best days lie ahead of us and that our future is full of promise,” according to her 10 Downing St. office.

Her own future is full of uncertainty. Johnson’s speech was a leadership pitch in all but name, and many Conservatives expect May to face a party coup soon after Brexit day — or even before, if there is no progress toward a deal.

Conservative lawmaker James Duddridge on Wednesday called the Brexit negotiations “an absolute disaster” and said Johnson’s speech had been “inspirational.”

“We need a strong leader and we haven’t got that at the moment,” Duddridge told the BBC.

“My support for her is wearing thin to the point of being invisible.”